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Hawkeye Football Recruiting: Grading Iowa’s Class of 2021 Early Signings

Iowa has put together one of its best classes under head coach Kirk Ferentz.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa
The swarm got bigger on Wednesday.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

College football’s early signing period is still under way, but the Iowa Hawkeyes have already wrapped up what they’re expecting to accomplish in this period. Iowa signed 17 scholarship players on Wednesday to what is one of the highest rated classes the Hawkeyes have had under head coach Kirk Ferentz.

Overall team rankings are still very fluid with commitments coming and going for programs across the country, but as it stands today, Iowa has the 27th best recruiting class in the country according to Rivals. Things look even better at 247 Sports, where the Hawkeyes currently rank 22nd. That’s good enough for 7th and 6th respectively in the Big Ten.

However, Iowa is lagging a bit given the sheer volume of commitments some schools have at this point. The Hawkeyes have built a strategy around locking up a number of commitments during the spring and summer before prospects’ senior years and then evaluating film and focusing efforts on a few final commits down the stretch. As it stands today, Iowa has 17 commitments lined up while both 247 Sports and Rivals count the top 20 commits for each school toward their rankings. Thus, some programs are jumping the Hawkeyes based on number of recruits rather than quality. Based purely on average star rating, which Hawkeye fans have come to know mean little in the grand scheme of individual players’ careers, Iowa would rank 5th in the Big Ten if things ended today.

So, where did Iowa do well and where is there work left to be done? We evaluate position group by position group.

Quarterback: B+

Iowa signed one quarterback commit on Wednesday, 3-star Ohio native Joey Labas. Labas is a quality pick up for the Hawkeyes. The former Ball State commit checks a lot of boxes for Iowa. He has a great frame at 6’3” and 190 pounds. He can throw the ball deep and shows solid touch. And he completed 68% of his passes as a senior while throwing just 3 interceptions.

So, why not an A here? This is probably nitpicking, but it’s worth noting that Labas is a bit of a divergence from the recent trend for the Iowa staff. QB coach Ken O’Keefe has been reeling in highly rated prospects the last several cycles and has been alternating between pocket passers a la Spencer Petras and more mobile quarterbacks who aren’t true dual threats, but who show more mobility on film.

Labas appears to be more in the Petras mold and thus breaks the trend. Perhaps that will play out positively, but it may also mean Iowa is giving up on mobile QBs altogether.

Running Back: Incomplete

We expect the Hawkeyes to take at least one RB in every class until the end of time and given a certain football deity who shall remain unnamed Iowa fans likely would take as many as they can get. But Iowa has not yet signed any in this cycle. The staff put a lot of eggs into a few baskets early and watch those eggs get scrambled. Now they’re evaluating senior film, extending new offers and pushing things to the February signing date. This will be an interesting story line to follow the next few months.

Wide Receiver: A

As an Iowa fan, this receiving group has to make you excited. Much of the offensive hype entering 2020 was built on the quality of players in the WR room entering the year. The staff recognized that as well and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland went out and found talent to replicate what is already on campus.

Nebraska native Keagan Johnson is an Ihmir Smith-Marsette clone. He’s got elite top end speed with dynamic playmaking ability. Put simply, he’s the caliber of athlete Iowa doesn’t get at WR. But here we are.

Opposite of Johnson is the clear Brandon Smith replacement in Ankeny native Brody Brecht. Brecht has a bigger frame than even Smith and his film is littered with incredible catches. He has enough speed to take the top off and the tools to be a consistent threat at the sticks or in the redzone.

And then there’s Arland Bruce IV. Bruce’s film looks like a carbon copy of Tyrone Tracy Jr.’s high school tape. He plays running back and receiver, showing incredible vision and balance out of the backfield that should lend itself well to breaking downfield tackles. But he also has the breakaway speed to truly open up an offense either out of the slot or split out wide.

Excellent work by the Iowa staff to find and get all three of these talented prospects.

Tight End: Incomplete

The tight end position is perhaps a bit puzzling as an Iowa fan. This is, after all, Tight End U and one of the top tight end prospects in America was from the great state of Iowa this cycle. However, the Hawkeyes are leaving the early signing period without a tight end in the class.

Now, Iowa doesn’t need to take a tight end this cycle, but they certainly would like to add talent when it’s available. And they have in the form of a few very good walk-ons who candidly should be on scholarship somewhere (they’ll get their own dedicated coverage in due time). But this one still takes an incomplete until we see how things shake out in the late signing period.

Offensive Line: A

All the great Iowa teams have been built on a foundation of excellent line play up front. The Hawkeyes can overcome a lot of issues if the quarterback stays clean and the running game gets going. This offensive line group is about as good as you could hope for, particularly in a year where the staff was unable to really bring in prospects from outside the footprint for visits.

In total, Iowa landed four offensive linemen and three of them are rated as 4-star athletes by Rivals and 247 Sports. From a purely physical standpoint, the Hawkeyes added some maulers. Across the board, they measure in at 6’5” 290, 6’6” 275, 6’6” 305 and 6’6” 290. As high schoolers. That’s incredible.

Better yet, they back it up on the film. This groups is going to be serving up more pancakes than it takes to feed them.

Defensive Line: B+

Iowa is built in the trenches and as we saw this year, having a strong defensive line really opens things up for Phil Parker’s defense. This class saw a total of four defensive linemen commit based on current projects and that’s how we’ll grade them.

As they stand, it’s a solid group, all of whom are rated 3-stars by Rivals and 247 Sports. The one sticking point right now is the makeup. The class features three prospects listed s defensive ends with just Bettendorf native Griffin Liddle listed as a tackle. Liddle is a high end 3-star who frankly could have had a 4th, but Iowa is losing Jack Helfin and Austin Schulte to graduation this year and will almost certainly lose Daviyon Nixon to the NFL draft. Kelvin Bell’s group needs some more beef in the middle and could have used another body here it would seem.

Linebacker: A-

Where defensive tackle seems one body short, linebacker may be a body too many. Iowa took four commits here as well, despite playing a substantial amount of 4-2-5 defense the last few seasons. However, reading between the lines a bit, we could see some position changes here.

The headliner in this group is 4-star Minnesota native Justice Sullivan. The Iowa State legacy has an incredible backstory but also played a lot of his high school career with his hand on the ground. Given his frame, we could see him slide up to the defensive line in Iowa City.

That line of thinking is supported by the late addition of Iowa Falls native Karson Sharar just last week. Sharar is one of three Iowans to sign in this group, including Jaden Harrell and Zach Twedt. Twedt is another interesting case given his frame and offensive playmaking as a prep. He’s one to watch for a potential try out if Iowa indeed goes without a tight end this cycle.

Overall, this is a group of really talented linebackers with a good mix of coverage ability and run stuffing potential.

Defensive Back: C+

And finally, the defensive backs have a mixed grade here. Iowa is losing Matt Hankins to graduation this year and already saw a number of players in the room depart due to transfers this fall. Despite the need for depth, Phil Parker only added one commit in the early signing period.

That one commit was a high quality one with Ida Grove native Cooper DeJean. DeJean’s film is one of the most impressive you’ll see and will have you wondering if he should end up on offense. At the end of the day, however, he’s likely to end up as a safety for the Hawkeyes.

But Iowa is yet to sign a cornerback in the class, which feels like the more timely need for the depth chart. We’ve learned to never doubt Phil Parker and always count on his late cycle find so we’ll continue to do that here. Until then, this grade is tracking lower than we’ve come to expect.

Overall: B+

Overall, it’s hard not to give this class really high marks. It’s likely going to end up as the highest rated class in 15 years for Iowa and it has a great combination of star power on the offensive line and incredible athleticism at some of the skill positions. However, it is lacking at a few key positions. If the Hawkeyes can land a quality RB, CB and potentially find a tight end and defensive tackle in the late period, this will be a remarkable recruiting class for Iowa.